Surgery!

Please excuse my long absence – school holidays came and went, along with the usual chaos/fun they involve, followed by two weeks of cleaning up the mess.  I did lots of great running meanwhile, including a beautiful 21km run from Torquay to Bells Beach and back along the Surfcoast Walking Trail

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Views along the Surfcoast Walking Track near Torquay

 

a few great ones up at Mount Dandenong on my favorite roller coaster loop

A fallen tree near Mount Dandenong

A fallen tree near Mount Dandenong

and a wonderful adventure down on the Two Bays Trail last Friday.

View from Arthur's Seat on the Two Bays Trail near Dromana

View from Arthur’s Seat on the Two Bays Trail near Dromana

Which brings you kind of up to date.

And me just one week (gasp!) away from surgery.  Voluntary surgery, no less.

I’ve had this vein-gone-wrong in my left leg (okay, lets call it what it is, a varicose vein) since I was 32.  I remember the day I noticed it.  A lump appeared down low on my thigh.  I was convinced it was cancer.  In complete panic, I called my then-Doctor, got in to see him straight away (these were the days I worked in a suit in Melbourne and went to city doctors!), and found out I wasn’t dying.  That was a great relief.

But to be told I had a varicose vein?  Suddenly, I felt very, very old.  Now, varicose veins are genetic.  I hadn’t somehow caused it by walking or exercising too much, the doctor assured me.  But that didn’t matter.  Old people had varicose veins; therefore, I was old. Old.  At 32, that belief mattered.  It crushed me for a bit.

It took a couple of months, but I got over it.  Decided that as long as I was fully functional, so be it, I had a vein-gone-wonky.  That has worked a treat for the last sixteen years.  But during those many years, the vein grew and grew, became twisted and began to work less and less well.  I started to trip up more often on trail runs, always on that leg.  I got terrible cramps in that calf at night, that would wake me up and keep me up for hours.  And not-so-kind people began to comment (“Oh, look at your leg.  That must hurt.  It looks awful!”), so I started to hide it in long running tights.  I’m not about looks, I’m about performance.  But I’m human too.

Last year, I finally got the guts up to see a Vascular Surgeon, and she suggested all was not well.  And not just visually.  Such a messed up vein could cause blood clots.  And serious bleeding if I cut it (like, perhaps, by tripping over in the middle of a long trail run).  These things were important.  I planned to have surgery the next month, September 2013.  To address this thing once and for all.

Except I didn’t.  There were too many cool races to complete.  There was Marysville and Lorne and Two Bays and the Roller Coaster Run, and the Buffalo Stampede.  North Face too.  I didn’t make all of them due to a knee injury, but I did a lot.  These were followed swiftly by the four races of the Salomon Trail Series.  Where to fit surgery requiring four weeks off running?  I decided quietly in my head that September 2014 would be it.  Just before the whole thing kicked off again, in an endless, thrilling cycle of trail racing.

Just prior to the last race of the Salomon Trail Series (23k down in Anglesea) in September, 2014, I finally called the surgeon.  I wanted surgery right away, I’d decided ages ago, I said (thinking about the 28km Two Bays Trail Race I’d already booked for January, 2015).

“Perhaps you should have told me…” the receptionist/surgery booker replied.  I laughed and admitted I’d been putting it off for rather a long time.  She tried to squeeze me in before the surgeon’s next holiday, which was a week off.  While this did seem a bit risky (perhaps she’d be thinking of margarita’s instead of veins?), I gave the go ahead, but it didn’t work out anyway.

Instead, we arranged for 27 October.  Which seemed ages and ages away at the time.  For the last month, I’ve been kicking up my heels in joy along every trail I’ve run, like I’ve been given an extra month of freedom.

But now here I am, a week away from something I’ve put off for, oh, fourteen years or so.

While I can be courageous when I’m controlling the risks (long trail runs alone but fully prepared), when someone else is in charge my inner wimp climbs right out of the back seat and plonks herself down firmly in the front.  And makes me think about everything that could go wrong.  I’ve Googled all the surgery risks (mistake), examined posts in Forums about surgery gone wrong (bigger mistake), driven my husband nuts talking about the chances of me dying (he’s a very patient man).

Finally, I’ve come to terms with it.  Kind of.

Here’s the good stuff that I’m trying to focus on:  perhaps I’ll trip over less frequently.  My leg won’t be swollen and cramp at night.  I will wear shorts to teach again without feeling self-conscious.  Most importantly, I won’t be worrying about a potential blood clot having some serious impact on my life down the track.  Or bleeding out on a solo trail run (not that I worried much about that, but humor me please).

All that said, please send me some kind thoughts next Monday because I’m sure to be a little bit of a scaredy-mouse come the actual surgery.

The rest of this week holds some terrific training to get me in my final peak shape before Monday, and I’m going to soak up every little bit of it, starting with a couple of hours in the Dandenongs tomorrow.

 

…how big your brave is…

The words of the song “Brave” have been playing through my mind this afternoon.  I haven’t visited with you for a while because I’ve been trying to find my “brave”.

I won’t lie; it has been a tough few weeks.  The reasons are private as they involve young children – what I want to write about is how I’ve coped, how I’ve found my “brave” to be able to face what I have to face.

First, there was the soft-sand beach run.  Melbourne has been putting on quite a winter for us, with every single run requiring some sort of bravery.  Last Thursday at 3:20 pm, just as I was about to set off, I noticed the blackest of clouds out my window.  I knew what they meant; I’d seen the weather.  Rain, hail, high winds.  I had a plan – 20 minutes of hill reps, followed by 25 minutes of soft-sand running.  I figured I had a narrow window before the heavens opened.

I was wrong – they opened about one block from home.    So what, I said to myself.  It’s rained every single time I’ve done hill reps.  The wind picked up.  Gusty, branch-dropping, tree-falling sort of wind.  I began on the gum-tree side of the street, switching to the side with smaller trees periodically.  The rain poured; the wind lashed me.  I watched the big trees cautiously, ready to duck and weave if they dropped a branch or themselves.  I ran up and down and up and down.  Eight reps.  The rain grew, if anything, heavier.  But the wind was the real enemy.  I ran to the beach.

There, the bay had been whipped into furious white waves.  They threw themselves over the sea wall.  They pelted me as I ran along the path.  The sideways rain drenched me.  I began to laugh.

No one was there but me.  I entered the beach, began my soft-sand run.  Rain and howling wind, but nothing to be blown or dropped on me, so I felt safe.  The sea was half-way up Hampton Beach, the widest beach I’ve ever known had been reduced to maybe four-feet across.  I ran, my feet sinking into the sand.  Crossed the rocks onto the Brighton side of the beach, where the sand was thicker.  I stopped for a moment to watch huge waves crash into the sea wall, froth and foam in the air.  I wondered how the sea wall could survive such an onslaught.

I made one lap that took fifteen minutes; I’d planned two, but was so cold and wet, that even I realised there was a virtue in being flexible, so I counted the ten minutes I had to run home as part of the soft-sand run.  A kite-surfer appeared just as I was leaving the beach, the first person I saw in that hour.  We grinned at each other, and I felt more alive than I had all week.

The second brave came on Saturday.  I’d had to miss my favorite Dandenongs run on Friday, due to hail, high tree-knocking-down winds, and thunderstorms, so had saved it up for Saturday.

Saturday was cold, blue-skyed, light breezes.  In short, glorious.  The dusting of snow from the day before had melted and all around me were extra streams, glimmers of water, life returning with the promise of spring.  The golden wattle was in bloom, with its signature scent that says home to me.

I was playing “attack the hills”, a fun game designed by my running coach, where you run up the hills at 80%, then the last twenty-five meters, you bolt up at 100% and then keep running.  I ran up hills I had never managed to run up before in two years of trying, and was delighted and exhausted, and elated.  I saw no one for two hours, until I came to the final three kilometer downhill.

There at the top, was a lone mountain biker staring out at the view.  He seemed deep in thought, so I remained silent as I ran by.  I remember thinking it was cool that we were both there, sharing this wondrous place.

The downhill was steep, gravelly, slippery, but I was focused on short steps, not committing too much to any one step, and feeling faster and more confident as a result.  I’d finished a couple of sections when I heard crashing far behind me.  It was subtle at first, and I thought it was either a wallaby or the mountain biker.  I was focused on my footing and waited a moment to turn, ready to clear the trail.

When I turned, I was stunned.  The mountain biker was flying towards me, all of three feet away.  I’d already begun moving to the right.  In the split-second it took to see him, I heard him begin shouting but didn’t have time to make out what he was saying.  It was all said too late and he was coming way too fast and we were going to collide.  We both reacted instantly, me shifting slightly to the left, him arcing around me in a terrifying slide to the right.

He came so close to ending me.  So close to ending both of us.  But he missed me with the final slide and continued slaloming down the hill, never once braking, shouting over his shoulder, “F…ing idiot!!” which scared me more than anything, but still I shouted back, “Yes, you are!!”

Of course, moments later, shaking, I realised that a woman alone in the woods near dusk should probably not shout out things like that to a lone man on a mountain bike.  So I spent the next few kilometers watching his bike trail in the mud, waiting for him to jump out of the bushes and bash me.  He didn’t.

Still, I was angry, and terror-stricken at how vulnerable I suddenly felt, at how quickly the joy of running could have been sucked from me.  But it wasn’t.  That’s what I kept saying to myself on the way down, it didn’t happen.  It didn’t happen.  It didn’t happen.

Third and final brave:  last night we went out for our 19th wedding anniversary to Chapel Street, South Yarra, home of the trendy and well-dressed.  I’m an Icebreaker and wool jumper sort of gal, so I was already feeling a bit out of place.  But we chose the trendiest of pasta places, one we’d visited maybe 12 years ago, on a last night out prior to leaving Australia to move to Hong Kong.  This restaurant held precious memories, and though we hadn’t booked, it was a cold winter night in Melbourne on a Monday.  It felt like the right place to go.

I went first, to face the Maitre d’.  I stood up to my tallest 161 cm, feeling my red three-quarter length jacket hug me, and tried to project my best Audrey Hepburn from Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

“Are we too late for dinner?” I said, smoothly (ha!).

“No, Signora,” the boy young enough to be my son said.  He had great teeth. White and straight.  “Do you have a reservation?”

“No,” I said sadly (still aiming for Audrey).

He looked around.  Then he smiled, and pointed to the best table in the entire restaurant right up the front.

“May I take your coat?” he said.

He took our coats, sat us down, and I felt like a cool New York woman again, I’d done this, got us this great table.

Except the next waiter – let’s call him Owl Man – he did not have a good smile.  He looked at me like a freak of nature with his head turned to the side (hence, Owl Man), couldn’t understand my wine order (which I stumbled over because he made me forget how to speak), and when he brought a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc instead of Cabernet Sauvignon I panicked and said, yes, that’s right, and it took my husband to notice that, no, this was certainly not what I ordered.  I felt a fool, but he must have felt a fool too, because after he got the right bottle, he proceeded to drip it in my water glass and onto the table as he poured.  And he never once commented on it.

From that moment, I was afraid of Owl Man.  He had seen through my Audrey Hepburn.  When he came to describe the specials, he began by saying they had a bruschetta (“Do you know what that is?” he said, his head cocked to the side, eyeing me as if I were ten, or a complete buffoon); we have a penne (long tubes of pasta, he said).  By this point, I’d gotten the giggles and could not look up at him.  I had to pull the hair at the base of my skull to stop the laughter that threatened to over-run me.

He finally went away, and the gorgeous boy with the straight teeth served us from there on.  The food was beautiful but I was never able to summon my inner Audrey back.

So three braves in the face of a couple of extremely challenging weeks.  Facing the storm at the beach; saving myself from the killer mountain biker; and entering a Chapel Street restaurant without a reservation.

It helps to find these moments of brave to face up to the rest of life.  Then I can look back and say, if I did that, surely I can face this…

And that’s really what it’s all about.  Finding those brave moments to teach us that we are, in fact, brave.  Brave enough.

 

What do I do now?

I’ve spent most of today playing avoid-the-computer and I suspect I have something to say that I don’t want to say, so I’m sitting down now, at 8:04 pm just after the kids are in bed, and I’m going to say it.

Ah, but what is it?  A gnawing sense of “it’s not fair”?  The North Face 50 (TNF 50) trail race is happening this weekend, and like the Two Bays 56k in January, and the Buffalo Stampede 43k, it will be happening without me.  I’ve known that for ages, but I somehow kept hoping.  Hoping that despite the knee injury I suffered in November last year, the calf-strain in January, and the face-plant a week ago, that I’d get the mileage up to be able to do it.  I’ve done the math again and again (and again) and such an outing would no doubt lead to injury.  My biggest week since November has been 44km, and my longest outright run 23km.  That’s far short of what TNF 50 requires.

So it stinks.  And it isn’t fair (well, it is really, no one can hurt us but ourselves).  Last year’s TNF 50 was life-changing for me and my family.  We hadn’t stayed in a hotel in five years; we hadn’t traveled anywhere other than our beach house and back.  I finally managed to break us out of that pattern, by booking a race that required us to break it, and suddenly the world opened up for us again.

But part of me, to be honest, didn’t see the sense in returning to do it again.  It was a challenge I’d conquered already.  I had learned what the race had to teach me, and put the lessons into play by seeking the help I and my family required.  I’d seen what I went there to see.

Right after the race, I decided I needed an even bigger adventure, and planned that it would be racing somewhere in New Zealand.  There were places there that were calling me, vistas I longed to see.

Somewhere I’d love to see in New Zealand…3 ASICS Kepler Challenge 60K trail race in New Zealand’s Fiordland National Park.

 

But I never sought out the races.  I got scared.  Time slipped by.  It seemed too big of a stretch.  And I’m a creature of habit; I tend to sign up for races I’ve done before, simply because I know them.  When TNF 50 registrations came up, I was one of the first to enter.

I’m at a funny place in my running, and I was even when I signed up for the events of the last year.  I’m not really enjoying the super long-distance stuff and I’m missing my speed.  For me, running has always been about an endorphin blast.  Today, I ran for 5k on the treadmill for the first time in ages, and did my favorite speed workout, one minute fast, one minute recovery, getting faster in speed by .2 for about 10 cycles.  I’d been too injured to do it recently.  My new “normal” pace has been 6 minute kilometers: that’s the one I’ve used for my long, slow distance, and it is comfortable and easy.  But my body doesn’t like it.

And when I translate that into the numbers I’m used to on the treadmill, I want to cry.  I used to run at a speed of 12 as a baseline and went only up from there.  This pace is more like 10.  Numbers matter to me; speed matters.  Today, I crept back up to 12, then did my one minute intervals, increasing by .2 up to 13.8, with rest intervals of 11 in between.  And suddenly, I came alive again.  The cadence felt right, my feet were flying, and I’d found the flow that has been absent for so long.

Now the question weighs heavy on me: what do I want to do?

I’ve signed up for the Surfcoast Century 50k (SCC 50) in September, but the thought of it fills me with dread.  I don’t want to run slow; I want to sprint like a Cheetah.  I’ve also signed up for all four long courses in the Salomon Trail Series, but “long” tops out at 23km, which is just a nice distance.  I’m planning to be fast in those, so that’s fine.  But do I do the SCC 50?  I’ve seen half of it already, having done the first amazing leg as part of a relay team; will the second leg and the extra time add so much?

I’ve been debating this question since the Marysville Marathon, when I declared at about 38k that it sucked and I was never going to do that kind of distance again.  I haven’t.  Due to injury.

Now it comes down to choice.  I think that is what I’m struggling with.  Not so much despair at the race I’m going to miss on Saturday, but where I’m going to next.

The other thing I did at the gym was lift some big heavy weights, to try to wake up the muscles that have disappeared from my arms.  It seems I’ve burned them off, an unwelcome side-effect of running far.

Where to next?  A question I’ll be contemplating carefully in the coming weeks…

Do I run far or fast or can I do both?

Funny, I thought the sense of unease I was feeling all day was about not doing the TNF 50 this weekend.  Really, that was the line I’d drawn in the sand to call an end to the ultra-running.  Because I don’t get to jump over that line, it seems I’ve drawn a new one in September.  Do I really want to do it though?

No answers right now, just questions…

And here’s the other thing:  I’m afraid the followers I’ve built up through my blog and other social media won’t find me interesting or inspiring if I cut back on my distances. That’s a hard thing to admit.

 

Riding the 2014 Roller Coaster: 21.5km of trail running pain and pleasure

It began in the dark.  And I mean the dark dark.  I was up at 4:50 am on race morning, and the house, for a change, was still.  I crept downstairs, trying not to wake the puppy, the cats, or my two young children.  My poor husband had been woken by the alarm but hopefully was already fast asleep.

It felt good to be up.  I hadn’t braved a really early run since injury back in November 2013.  There is something holy about the pre-dawn, and I cherished the silence as I got myself ready. By 5:15 am, I was pulling out for the hour-long drive.  I was apprehensive: my knee injury after the Marysville Marathon had been my worst and longest-lasting injury in thirty years of running.  I’d had six weeks without running, and had to rebuild as if I had zero base.  I hadn’t expected to get to do the Roller Coaster Run even though I’d signed up for it months ago.  It was just by luck (and some careful planning) that my long run distance had gotten up to 21k the week before.  There was no time to taper, so I was going in hot.  And nervous about re-injury.

I know most of the drive well, as I train at Mount Dandenong weekly, but I usually start at The Basin Theatre in Doongalla because I’m a scaredy-mouse on the narrow twisting roads that lead to Sky High, Mount Dandenong, where the Roller Coaster Run begins.  When I finally came to the smaller road forty minutes later, I gripped the steering wheel tightly, and noted that it was still pitch-dark.  Luckily, no one drove up behind me for a good long while.  I’m too scared to pull over to let people pass, especially in the dark on a road I don’t know.  But close to Olinda, I picked up some followers, gritted my teeth, and pulled to the side.  I waited while about ten cars passed me.  There goes my pole position parking, I thought.

I pulled out onto the dark road again and on I drove, twisting, turning, swearing, following my headlights.  Finally the turn-off for Observatory Road and Sky High came.  It was more long, scary, dark road.  More cars behind me.  I got there finally, drove through and was directed by a man with a torch to the right.  The man gestured for me to lower the window,  but I was so nervous I forgot how, and it took a couple of tries to get it down.  He told me to drive all the way to the back of the unpaved car park, and I’m sure my eyes were wide with terror.  But I drove on, thought there was going to be a turn-off, then saw a space right by the fence, which must have been where he meant.  This was fine until I’d parked, paused to draw breath, and switched off my headlights.

It was when I stepped out of the car that I noticed it was still the dead of night.  There was not a single light.  I couldn’t even see my feet.  I’ll admit I was flummoxed by this; I stood at the back of my car for a few moments, realised I couldn’t see to get my gear ready, so closed up and decided to register instead.

It was a long walk across that car park.  I could feel with my feet that the ground was uneven but couldn’t see what was coming next.  Caution slowed me: I didn’t want to sprain my ankle before the race even began.  When I saw the lights of registration, I began to relax.

 

Reassuring lights of registration

Reassuring lights of registration

Here was a place I knew well.  I had run last year in the same half-marathon, but what a different person I was a year later.

I didn’t reflect on the changes.  I simply navigated my way down the steep slippery steps and picked up my race number.  The clowns behind the desk (and I do mean clowns – that is the theme of the volunteers at the Roller Coaster Run, and they were doing it well, with wigs and makeup and costumes) made the darkness surreal.  Was I still at home dreaming?  I’d been having lots of bad dreams recently, so I hoped not.

I found my way carefully back to my car, where I realised the stranger parked next to me that I’d said good morning to in the dark earlier was actually Jon, a trail running friend.  It had been too dark to even see each other.  We shared a laugh, and then I focused on getting my gear organised, with the help of the torch I recalled I kept in the glove box.

It was cold; I was worried I’d drop the little connectors off my triathlon belt onto the ground and lose them in the dark.  With numb fingers I got my number attached to the belt and clipped it on, and slipped on my Salomon backpack.  It fit like an old friend.  I checked for gels and salt tablets, for the spare water bottle, then I stowed my car keys and mobile phone inside and wandered back to the start.

With no family with me, it was hard to keep rugged up enough to stay warm.  I usually toss my warmest layer (a down jacket) to my husband right before the start.  Today, I opted for a long-sleeved t-shirt topped by a wool icebreaker, thinking I’d stow them in my pack just before the start.  I was cold immediately.

At the start area, I ran into Travis from Dandenongs Trail Runners, another of the many lovely encounters with trail running friends that day.  We said hello, and I was so pleased to know someone in the middle of this large crowd.  We chatted about distances and training, and I shivered and quickly drank the Gatorade I was holding simply to make it gone, so I wouldn’t have to hold the cold bottle anymore.  Gradually, the sky lightened.  It dawned foggy so the lights of Melbourne were not visible this year.  I felt cocooned in the starting area.

Before the start

Before the start

Eventually, deciding it was dumb to carry extra gear, and that I could admit to the person at bag check I didn’t actually have a bag without too much shame, I reluctantly climbed the steps again to leave my long-sleeved tops hanging from the tent posts at bag check.  I began shivering uncontrollably.  Ah, but there was a crowd, and like a small penguin, I made for the center of it, and felt the temperature rise considerably.

Soon, the Jester (Rohan Day, Race Director) took to the microphone to warn us of sharp turns and gravelly downhills.  These didn’t surprise me, but reminded me of my worry about staying at my own slow, recently-injured pace among the crowds of runners.

I forgot the worry when Rohan began talking about the new addition for the 43km runners.  I listened with my mouth open as Rohan explained how it would work.  “You drop a ball in the clown (he pointed to a carnival-type clown like the ones you fire water into to make a balloon explode).  If you get an even number, you can deduct this from your marathon time.  If you get an odd number, you have to add it on.”  He had a volunteer demonstrate.  I could almost feel the unease grip the crowd: who would the winner be then?  Was this for real?  What if you got a really big number, what would happen?  He went on to reassure the runners: so, you’ll have Garmin time, Race time, and Clown time. Clown time!  I loved it.  I saw the serious marathon runners visibly relax; their time would be correctly measured.

 

Once the sun had risen enough to make the trails visible, Wave 1 set off.  I was in Wave 2, having downgraded from the marathon course a week ago.  I was strangely calm.  Perhaps because I’d run the course the week before, or maybe because I’d decided I wasn’t racing, there was little pressure.  The count down happened, we bolted off and a smile formed on my face that had been absent for some time.  I was racing again, and I was overjoyed.

We began on a road, and quickly turned left onto a steep downhill track.  I slowed.  Many passed me.  I tried not to care, but it was hard.  Downhill is my weakness, and I was concentrating on short, fast steps in my minimalist shoes.  I held onto the fact that uphill is my strength, and let the others go.  Soon we turned left and the trail – I was going to say flattened out – but it never really flattens out in the Roller Coaster Run.  It did its painful thing, it rolled.

Now I could give you a blow-by-blow of each bit of the race, with trail names and emotions, but I prefer to give you the highlights.

  • Flying down Zig Zag and Channel 10 tracks, twisting and turning, dancing around rocks and branches, keeping my balance.  Noticing the Japanese Maple that will soon glow with autumn leaves.
  • Dodd’s track, not the horrible bit, but the rocky bit that’s like a steep river bed.  Rocks in just the right places.  The spot where I found a white feather last year.  Sweat dripping down my face.  Hard, but not too hard.  The feel of muscles firing in my legs, of power.  Encouraging some runners who were doing it hard.
  • The hill along Banksia Track that I hate more than any hill on the course.  It is a subtle hill which looks unthreatening from the bottom, but ever since my friend Ben ran up it and I couldn’t run up it to save my life then or the many times I’ve tried since, I’ve hated that hill.  I hurled bad words at it in my mind as I climbed, and wondered if it would ever become easier.
  • The 13km marker on Stables Track, where last year, I did a superb face-plant Superman-style that nearly ended my race.  The marker, I noted this time, was on the other side of the track this year, and I carefully did not look at it.
  • Link Track, where the thunderstorm began last week, and I was afraid I was going to be hit by lightning.
  • The young guy who ran up Singleton Terrace behind me as I opened gel number 2, who looked fresh-faced and healthy, who asked if I was okay.  I thought that was kind of him, and said I was good.  Then I wondered if I looked really shaky.
  • Old Mountain Road, which goes on and on and on and on.  But I knew at the top were Claire, Sarah, and Scott, dressed as clowns, who made the whole thing feel like a great homecoming.
  • Trig Track and calf cramps.  I know I’m not alone here.  I felt them begin and was terrified they’d end my race (oops, run).  I’d had two gels and two salt tablets, along with a fair amount of water.  So I could only attribute the cramps to lack of fitness, which made sense given that my longest week in months was, well, this week at 43km.  Still, I ran on.  I was chasing, in my head, my 2:38 finish that I’d achieved last year and never since.  The cramps came and went, threatening, but never so much that I had to stop.
  • The 21km marker, where I suddenly realised that the race went to 21.5km where I had stupidly thought it was just 21, and I wasn’t sure I’d make it.  It was a painful, painful battle, that last 500 meters.  I wanted to run, I so wanted to run, but I could only do the zombie march up the hill, panting and swearing and watching 2:38 tick by, which was somehow a relief because I could stop chasing that goal.
  • The moment I crossed that elusive finish line, and Dion shouted “Go Patricia” and I felt known.  The race medal that was draped over my neck, that I’d so wanted, because injury had made it seem impossible to achieve. Chatting to Caroline, Dion, Liberty, Anthony and Jon and others afterwards, laughing and smiling.
After the fun!

The elusive medal!

  • The brunch that I faced alone, and lonely, until I struck up happy conversation with strangers, and reminded myself I could do such things.  And finding some friends after all to share the moment with.
  • The pain and the challenge, and the number of warriors I saw out on the course who were struggling and keeping going, who were doing it tough, but were doing it.
  • The clowns.  The people in dress-up.  The fog.  The cheers and the blood on some of the runners and the smell of gum trees in the dampness.  The long, winding hill as I drove home.
  • The feeling of utter joy at finishing what is surely one of the toughest half-marathons out there.

Roller Coaster Run, I am so glad I got the chance to run you this year, and that I remained injury-free.  I’m grateful to the other runners, the volunteers, the race organisers, and my wonderful family and friends for supporting and believing in me.

Now I’ll just have to be very smart about recovering because the Salomon Trail Series is just around the corner!

 

 

 

 

“This could be the end of me,” I said out loud…

I was alone on a high mountain trail, ten kilometers from where I’d parked my car.  Twenty minutes ago, I’d somehow convinced myself that the loud crashing I kept hearing had to do with a mine down in the valley.  That’s what it had to be.  Because if that sound was actually thunder I was going to be in a whole world of trouble, and very soon.

I came to a clearing in the trees and stared, horror-struck, at the dark mass of roiling clouds.  I did some quick calculations, based on where I was standing half-way into the Roller Coaster Run route.  I’d already traversed Golf Course Track, Stables Track, Bills Track, and Edgar Track.  I’d climbed up the steepest traverse in this section, and continued onto Camelia, Link Track, and was halfway along Singleton Terrace.  Turning back wouldn’t help; I was already past the point where that would be of use, and I knew that there were houses coming up which could provide shelter.  But they were a ways away, and the hill was steep.

I stopped for a photo.

The approaching storm

The approaching storm

I was thinking if I got struck by lightning, at least there would be proof that there had been a storm in the photos.  It would help explain things.  Still, I wasn’t really believing the storm was coming at that stage.  I was sure it was going to blow over quickly and I’d be fine.

I continued on.  The rumbling grew louder, startling me with the booms that seemed to echo around the empty trail.  I’d not seen a soul since setting out more than an hour ago.  I thought of Jurassic Park, how they had counted the length of time between thunder booms to see if the storm was moving closer.  I counted as I ran.  I got up to ten, then fifteen.  I was feeling happier, less frightened.  I remembered being out in an adventure race in Hong Kong when a huge lightning storm unexpectedly struck; I had survived that and that was way more exposed, right?

It was then I felt the change in the air, the one that presages rain.  There were stalky plants on the side of the trail, and they looked to me like their leaves were somehow standing on end.  I recalled a story of a father and daughter who narrowly escaped being struck by lightning out on a pier on Port Phillip Bay.  They had taken a funny photo, a selfie, of their hair standing out from their heads.  Then they realized what was about to happen, and ran like hell was on their heels.  Lightning struck that pier moments later.  They survived.

I ran on, up, my breath coming in gasps.  It wasn’t the terrain that was making me breath hard.  It was downright fear.  I stopped counting the thunder.  The rain began suddenly, in large, heavy drops, thudding into me.  I tried to run faster but the hill was too steep.  Still, I believed the storm wasn’t going to be too bad, that it would move quickly, as storms do in Melbourne.  I was surrounded by tall trees so I certainly wasn’t the tallest thing in the landscape and the trail was relatively sheltered.  And there was nothing else I could do.

With growing dread, I noted that the thunder had grown more frequent.  The temperature dropped dramatically.  I rubbed my bare arms and ran.  Lightning flashed in the blackened sky, and I shouted out loud in fear.  I am in so much trouble, I said aloud.  It began to hail.  I tried to recall the best thing to do when caught in a thunderstorm on a heavily wooded mountain but could only come up with keep on running.  Get to shelter if you can.  So I did, I kept running.  Panic is not the right word for what I felt.  Terror.  Certainty that I was in over my head this time, that I couldn’t figure a way out other than keeping going.  I’d messed up and this could be it for me.

I came to the first of the houses on the trail, but dismissed it as too scary to contemplate entering.  I kept running, knowing the trail came to the top of the hill very shortly, and there was a yoga studio I could hide out in up there.  Up and up, breathless, shaking with fear, I ran.  Sometimes I walked, thinking to save my energy in case lightning struck and started a bushfire and I really needed to flee.  The possibility felt very real.  I came to the Old Mountain Road section of track and made my way up as fast as I could.  The rain by now was pelting down, the track running with water.

Finally, I made it to the top.  I looked around, noticed the closed cafe with a sheltered porch and darted across the road.  There, I stood as the rain grew heavier.  I was soaked, wearing just a singlet and running tights, but I wasn’t cold, not yet.  I let my breathing slow, contemplating calling my husband but decided there wasn’t much he could do to help me, so I waited.  Across the next valley, the sky was dark with storm clouds.  I felt alone on top of the world, but safer than out on the trail.  It took about ten minutes for the rain to lessen and the sky to lighten.  I worried I’d grow cold standing around so when the opportunity came, I bolted back for the trail.  The rain stopped and the sky was blue in the distance.

It was hard to believe I’d just survived what felt like a true life-threatening situation.  I was soaked to the skin but not cold, so I continued onto Trig Track, walking, treading carefully on the saturated ground.  I heard a slithery sound in the bush and thought snake but then it was gone.

I hadn’t been running long when I heard the sirens.  I stopped in my tracks and scanned the sky for smoke, sniffed the air.  Nothing.  I feared that lightning had ignited a bushfire nearby, but nothing was noticeable.  Still, I picked up the pace, ran fast along Kyeema Track, not stopping at the usual viewing point.  A ParksVic truck came along towards me, and stopped to let me pass.  I wanted to ask them about the storm and the sirens but the ranger was on his phone and I couldn’t see through to the driver.  Surely they’d stop me if I were in danger.  Then I realized, yet again, that I was the only one out there who could protect me.

I ran on, up, knowing I was only 13k into my planned 21k, ready to bail out if the storm came back.  As if on cue, thunder suddenly boomed and the sky to the right of me was dark again.  Not again, I said to myself.  I had a terrible sinking feeling that I should have stayed put at the top of the mountain.  This time, though, the storm did bypass me.  I made it to Channel 10 Track, and zoomed down the side of the mountain, loving the speed, the feeling of growing safety as I got closer to my car.

By the time I was at the bottom, there was no sign of storm, except for the dampened trail and the intense smell of wet gum trees.  The storm was done.  The sky was blue.

So I decided I had no excuse, I would do the Dodds Track loop as well.  I had had enough of drama, so was not thrilled by the sight of a large wallaby on the edge of the track junction.  Usually, wallabies hopped quickly away and kept a safe distance from me.  This one appeared angry.  It shook its head at my approach, as if saying, no, don’t even think of coming closer.  I stopped.  Perhaps I could take its photo?  I’d never gotten a photo of a wallaby.

The wallaby who said no.

The wallaby who said no.

Really, I was just stalling because that wallaby seemed so angry.  I took the photo, put my phone away, and still, it shook its head at me.  Okay, I said to myself.  I picked up a stick, just in case.  Go away wallaby I said, hop on.  It didn’t move.  I waved my arms a little, go away, please.  It did then, it turned and hopped into the bush.

I continued up the stupidly steep Dodds Track, enjoying that it was a real trail with actual stones and dirt.  It was hard to climb but wonderful in a way.  The storm felt like it had happened in another lifetime by now.

But perhaps I was still spooked by all that had happened at this stage, because as I came to cross Basin-Olinda Road to make my way onto Banksia Track, a blue ute came along the road, and came to a quick stop just a few feet from me.  Bad guy, kidnapper, killer, I thought, and I bolted off the road and down the trail.  I was feeling fast and agile, and my first thought was I could simply run away.  I turned around after a few minutes hard running and of course there was no one there.

But my hackles had risen, and I ran the last few kilometers fast.  When I finally exited the trail on Doongalla Road, it was with a feeling of immense relief.  I had run the Roller Coaster Run course, which was my immediate goal one week out from the actual race.  And I had survived the massive thunderstorm, strangely savage wallaby, and the bad guy in the blue ute.

Now I just have to survive the clowns on race day, and all will be well.

By the way, the sirens I heard were for a fire that was started by a lightning strike in Healesville, some kilometers away, but I’m guessing sparked by the same storm.

Here’s wishing us all a less eventful day for the actual Roller Coaster Run!

Trail markings up for the Roller Coaster Run

Trail markings up for the Roller Coaster Run

Three great things…

The sun is shining outside in the true Melbourne autumn way.  That means blue skies, perfect temperatures and a light breeze off the bay.  It is the sort of day that recharges everything, and I’m feeling content right now.  So I thought I’d share a few of the beautiful moments that life has created for me recently…

– Just now, I took our lovely Leila (our four-month old rescue Labrador) for a walk around the block.  She was a bit tired from a great play at the beach this morning, where she had her first real socializing with other dogs.  Around the block, for the first time, she walked next to me on a loose lease, stopping to sniff now and then, not pulling, not dragging me behind her. It was such a contrast to our drag-and-tow walk on Sunday, from which my hands are still healing.  It was a magical twenty minutes with my first ever dog, and as I type this, she wanders in, contentedly licks my hand, and wanders out again.

Lovely Leila

Lovely Leila

– On Friday last week, I took a friend for a run in Sherbrooke Forest.  That sounds simple enough, but for me it was an epic journey.  I didn’t want to admit it to her, but I’d never driven to Belgrave alone, and was terrified.  Even finding the train station to pick her up was a big deal, as I was navigating alone and the signs were not good.

But I found her, drove her up the long, scary, single lane road, and found my way to Grant’s Picnic Area.  I’d been wanting to drive here for a year, but chickened out each time, going back to Mount Dandenong because I knew the way.  I led her on a 7.5k loop through tall gum trees, pointing out Lyrebirds and Kookaburras, Wallabies, Rosellas and Magpies.  Afterwards I drove us to Olinda for lunch down small roads I had never traveled.

The drive home took us down a twisty, turny, single-lane road.  If I’d been alone, I probably would have pulled over to still my shaking hands, but with her, I kept going, and drove us the hour home, finding the way without help.

Stepping beyond my comfort zones is never, well, comfortable, but once my territory is expanded, I have found it never shrinks back to the same size again.  So I’m grateful to her in so many ways, because now Sherbrooke Forest is mine too.  I know I can drive there without such great fear, and this opens the door.

Photo

Me running downhill in Sherbrooke Forest

– The same friend, it turned out, is an accomplished pianist.  She came home with me, and I asked her to show me something on the piece that had stalled me in my forward progress.  She pointed out that “both hands played in the Bass Clef”, and I knew just what she meant, and suddenly the mystery became clear and I could play the piece and move forward again.  I’ve only been playing for three months, teaching myself from children’s books, so each step forward is a small miracle.

– Yesterday, I went to train in the free weights area at the gym.  These two gigantic young men were training there too.  Next to them, someone had set up the squat rack with 60 kg of plates.  I asked them if they were using it.  They said no, but would not meet my eye, and I felt suddenly invisible.  One of them pointed out to me that there was a water bottle near the rack, so someone must be using it.  Go away, he was saying, some big guy like me is using that squat rack.  You’re too old and female to work out here next to us big blokes.  I looked around the room.  There was one elderly gentlemen, the two men I had spoken to, and one woman with a trainer.  No one was using that squat rack, and so I proceeded to unload it and use it, while the two muscle-men alternated between pretending I didn’t exist, and scowling at me.  No one came back to the rack, and I felt, somehow, that I had forced a space for us women in the free weights area that had not been there before I arrived.  Later, one of the men came and asked me to use a grip on a machine I’d just finished with.  This time, he met my eye, and I was no longer invisible.

So, three great things.  On this glorious blue-sky day, the world is seeming a whole lot brighter than it did a few weeks ago.

Oh, and the Roller Coaster Run is about ten days away.  I’ve dropped back to the 21km option, and I’m thrilled I’m going to get to do this wonderful race that had seemed out of reach when I was injured back in January.

Wishing you a day of blue skies and sunshine…

The dumbest thing I’ve ever done. Perhaps.

On Wednesday last week, after two months of searching, learning, exploring and deciding, a twelve-week old puppy arrived on our doorstep.  She was in the care of a foster mom at Labrador Rescue up in Queensland, having been saved from a shelter.  I knew she was the one the moment I saw her photo and I pursued her, well, like a Labrador pursues anything.  Doggedly, until she was ours, and we were hers.

image

She flew from Brisbane to Melbourne in the care of Jet Pets, and was handed to me (me who had never held a puppy before) in front of my house at 3:42 pm.  The kids got home at 4:00.  The cats?  They were seen once or twice shaking their heads in dismay through the windows.  I quickly captured and brought them in, so they wouldn’t disappear.  They cowered in their laundry room, disbelief in their eyes.

Leila, the pup, is good as gold, and behaving exactly as a puppy should behave.  In other words, peeing on the floor, crying for half the night, terrorizing the cats, and eating everything in sight.  She is like a living vacuum cleaner with no off switch.

Of course she is adorable and her ears as soft as silk, her wagging tail a delight to behold.

But here’s the thing:  life was already a challenge.  My youngest child has some serious learning issues, and does not respond well to change.  This means that the week we had of peace in my home – the first week of peace in eight years – has been suddenly replaced by dog toys being thrown at my head, and chants of “You’re a loser” copied direct from some TV show.  Saturday morning, I cleaned the kitchen and did six loads of laundry.  This is never a good sign.

A good friend found me walking the neighborhood on Saturday (I’d needed a breath of fresh air), pulled her car over, and said, “You look like you need a drink!”  I didn’t go with her – that would be a Pandora’s Box for sure, but my tight shoulders said she was right.

Monday has come, and the kids are at school.  Our little pup had a tummy ache but a race to the vet proves it is nothing too serious, and she settles down for a nap.

And I, after two sedentary days following this pup around my house (did I mention she can’t leave for another two weeks because she needs another vaccination?), I got my running shoes on.

Somewhere along that 7k of solitude, I found the strength to continue on.  My head cleared; I felt a sense of hope.  This is not the end.  This is only the beginning.  My cats and my children and I will all stretch a bit to accommodate this new creature.  I will open my heart and love her.

So…is it the dumbest thing I’ve ever done?  Ask me in a year, when my new Labrador/Kelpie is able to run with me.  Ask me in six months when she comes to the beach to chase balls.  Ask me later today when her whole body wags when she sees me.

I suppose great things do not come without great risks.  A lesson I have had to learn yet again.

I’ve also re-learnt the lesson about running, how it puts things in perspective and makes sane the crazy in me.